Yes, this is June's book. This is the first time I've ever written an entry on a month's book during the previous month! This is what vacation does, I suppose. It was also a fun read, which didn't hurt.
Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay
Fantasy (1990 - 688 pp.)
If I were to sum up Tigana in a word, it would be "swashbuckling". It hails from the height of the D&D/Lone Wolf era of high fantasy. It is stuffed with tropes to the Fantasy Novelist's Exam's chagrin. It is derivative enough to feel familiar yet is impressively released well before other '90s high fantasy epics like Wizard's First Rule (1994) and Game of Thrones (1996). The whole thing really feels like the perfect visual stimulation to have going while listening to, say, Keeper of the Seven Keys Parts I and II.
A hyper-quick summary, for those unwilling to achieve this from reading the first hundred pages: Devin, a young singer who is our hero, is called into action by a fellow musician named Alessan. Alessan opposes Brandin of Ygrath, who has conquered half of a peninsula called the Palm. The other half is controlled by Alberico in the name of the Barbadian Empire, who has made some enemies there who, unsurprisingly, link up with our hero as well. The beautiful Catriana is an early addition to the pack, her own singing voice acting as the recruiting tool. In true fantasy fashion, they are joined by a wizard (cannot even give you a name because that is how early spoilers start in plot-driven books like this one) and an engineer (Baerd). All this occurs in a world based very accurately on Renaissance Italy with some Spanish influences, albeit with less emphasis on family plotting. There is not much more I can say without giving away twists Kay throws at the reader.
A pleasant surprise was the relatively common occurrence of plot events that left me completely surprised. Reading enough fantasy books makes one used to the tropes, so when they are subverted in novel ways, it makes the reading experience more fun. Kay is highly skilled at this. For all the familiar twists and turns fantasy books throw at their readers, there were many times when I truly felt I had not read anything much resembling this book before. A character would act in an unanticipated way, or a plot point would deviate from what seemed right, or a dynamic would turn into something oddly cerebral. The best example of the last phenomenon is in the character of Brandin of Ygrath, who is one of the more compelling fantasy villains I have read and is my favourite character in Tigana. It is too bad his character is not revealed until far into the book, as the first half or so of Tigana feels like the heroes are opposing a force that is evil simply because the reader is told that force is evil. Feeling the struggle between good and quasi-evil toward the end makes Tigana what it is.
There are a couple minor issues with the writing and editing. One is Kay's use of comma splices, which is so common I have not bothered with examples. This is most likely a writing issue considering how often it arises. Although the writing is intentionally very casual, as in the removal of the comma before the word "though", I have a difficult time writing off comma splices outside of dialogue on this basis. Another is the repeated use of certain words. This is an editing issue, as keeping track of individual word use throughout an almost 700-page tome is unsurprisingly difficult for any writer. Some of Kay's favourites in Tigana include "equanimity" and "ramshackle". At one point, the latter appears twice in four pages (532, 535), implying some very run-down surroundings.
Hopefully the massive spike in popularity A Song of Ice and Fire has faced in recent years due to the hit TV show Game of Thrones will result in books like Tigana receiving a revival in commercial and critical acclaim. Tigana, for its story and rich world-building, to say nothing of the sex and violence that dot it, would make a great choice for a movie.
Ease of Reading: 8
Educational Content: 1
NOTE: Kay was born in Saskatchewan, grew up in Winnipeg, attended the University of Toronto law school, and currently lives in Toronto. It is always nice to see Canadian talent recognized. I think the linked interview's joining of literary and legal skills is perhaps overstated, as someone who has had to use both. Kay's seeming decision to write full-time is one I envy, though.